If you're not familiar with the game "World of Warcraft", it's a massive online world with over 6 million players, divided across many servers. The server I play on (rather sporadically, I might add), is named "Twisting Nether". I'm in a guild named "Disposable Hero" (if you know how much I like Michael Franti and you know his first group, I can assure you that the name is merely a pleasant coincidence).
The guild leader of Disposable Hero is named Kahierden. He's 17 years old, but there's only one other thing I really know about him. More on that in a moment.
Kahierden built Disposable Hero into a friendly, decent sized guild. He helps out other players who are less experienced, he helped us avoid a rather unpleasant guild takeover and is generally a nice guy. I chatted with him about politics, life, and other things and came away thinking "this is a nice guy". In fact, while I don't know him well, it's safe to say that, oddly enough, I think of him as a friend.
There's just one little problem. I really should have written about him in the past tense. Kahierden had a heart murmur and would often be gone in the hospital for days at a time. A few months ago, he went into the hospital and never came out. He knew he was dying and before he went, he gave his brother his username and password so that his brother could log on and transfer control over the guild to another player named Slyniti. He was dying but he wanted to make sure his online friends were taken care of.
After he died, we didn't know what to do. It's not as if we could attend his funeral. We considered him a friend and our guild leader, but we didn't know who he was. In game, we got together and had a moment of silence for him. This is probably one of the most unsettling things I've encountered, but how else do we honor his memory? One can say "it's only a game", but Kahierden was a real person.
This is going to be more and more common. As more people start transferring parts of their lives to online worlds, they're going to be making friends in a way that society isn't used to. Many of us today have real and virtual friends. What do we do when a virtual friend passes away, particularly one who so many people know and like? It would be unfair to say that I felt true grief over his passing, but I'm disturbed by this nonetheless.
I suppose some folks are going to think "get away from the damned computer", but that's like shoveling the ocean back with a fork. Even if I do it, millions of others are not and we'll see and hear more about this all the time. Our world is changing and the future of the Internet is going to continue to change things in ways we can't even imagine.